“Are” and “were” are both “to be” verbs, but you cannot use them interchangeably. Since misusing these verbs can create confusion, let’s look at when which is correct: “are” or “were”?
You should use “are” when the subject of your sentence is plural or from the second-person point of view (i.e., “you”) and in the present tense. You should use “were” when the subject is plural or in the second person POV but in the past tense. You can also use “were” in the subjunctive mood when speaking about a hypothetical situation.
Here, we’ll define both “are” and “were” and explore the usage of both the present and past tense forms in English. We’ll also take a look at how you can use “were” in the subjunctive mood. Continue reading for a more detailed explanation.
What Is the Difference Between “Are” and “Were”?
While both “are” and “were” are conjugations of the verb “to be,” the primary difference between these verbs is that “are” is a present tense form, and “were” is a past tense form.
Remember that present tense means something is happening now, while past tense indicates something that happened in the past, whether moments before or longer.
Therefore, you can only use “are” when writing or speaking in the present tense and “were” when writing or speaking in past tense or about a hypothetical situation.
We can also use both “are” and “were” in the indicative mood, while only “were” can function in the subjunctive mood — we’ll discuss these two moods in writing a bit more later in the article.
The Definition of Are
The verb “are” is the present tense second-person singular form of “to be” as well as the present tense plural form (source). Whether singular/second person or plural, remember that you can only use “are” to indicate an event or action in the present tense, not past tense.
Using the second person singular, you could write: “You are learning English.” But you also use “are” when you are writing in the present tense with plural subjects, such as “We are learning English,” and subsequently in the third person, “They are learning English.”
“Are” is in contrast to the singular conjugation of the verb “to be,” which is “am.” You would only use “am” when writing or speaking in the first-person singular present tense form, such as “I am learning English.” You can only use “are” with a singular subject when you are speaking from the second-person point of view (i.e., you).
The Definition of Were
The verb “were” is the past tense second-person singular form of “to be” as well as past tense plural and past tense subjunctive. The main distinction between “were” and “are” is that “are” is the present tense form, while “were” is the past tense form of the same verb.
You might say, “You were learning English when you first arrived in the United States.” This sentence is the second person past tense form.
Similarly, you can say, “We were learning English when we first arrived in the United States.” This is also in the second person past tense form, but rather than singular (you), using “we” indicates more than one or plural.
If you write the same sentence and use “they,” you are still writing in the past tense form and thus need to use “were,” but you would be writing in the third-person versus second-person point of view.
When to Use “Are” and “Were” Correctly
In general, you use verbs in their base form and modify them depending on the noun you are using to adhere to the grammar rules for subject-verb agreement (source).
However, “to be” verbs like “are” and “were” are irregular because their conjugated forms vary depending on the tense, mood, and personal pronouns we use with the verb.
English has many different tenses, and understanding them is essential to mastering the language. Remember that tenses can indicate time, duration, or state. Examples include the present tense, past simple tense, past continuous, future simple tense, etc.
The main distinction between “are” and “were” is that of the simple present tense versus the simple past tense. Understanding the difference between the two can help you recognize tenses more easily.
Below is a quick table for reference. You’ll note that “are” is always present tense, and “were” is always past tense, regardless of the point of view from which you are writing.
|Conjugation of “Be”||Are||Were|
|First Person Plural||We||We|
|Second Person Singular or Plural||You||You|
|Third Person Plural||They||They|
The time frame and, of course, the context of your sentence will indicate whether you should use “are” or “were” at any given time.
Present Tense: Are
The present tense is a set of verb forms that indicate something happening now. Again, we use “are” as the present tense form of the verb “to be.”
The singular form of “to be” would be “is,” while “are” is the plural form. For this reason, you should only use “are” when the subject of your sentence is plural or if you are speaking or writing in the second person (we/you) or third person (they).
Take a look at the sentence below.
- Greg and Donna are at the front door.
Greg and Donna are the subjects. Because there are two subjects (Greg and Donna), the subject is plural, and, thus, we should use “are,” not “is.” The sentence is also in the present tense, not the past tense. We know this because “are” always indicates present tense.
You can also use “are” in the present tense with another verb to indicate a continuous action, which we call the present progressive or present continuous tense.
Below, rather than the simple present tense with a single verb, we’ll use a verb phrase to indicate an action occurring in the present but that is ongoing.
- Greg and Donna are knocking on the front door.
Again, Greg and Donna are the subjects. Thus, the subject is plural, so we need to use “are” if we choose to write in the present tense.
Additionally, in this example, “are knocking” is the full verb phrase in the present tense form. Adding the -ing suffix to the base verb “knock” indicates that the action is ongoing or progressive, so we call this present progressive or present continuous.
Remember, when you use the present tense with plural subjects, whether from a second- or third-person point of view, you’ll need to use “are.”
Past Tense: Were
Past tense indicates something that has already happened. The simple past tense describes the past in the capacity of one time period, directly before the present. We use “were” as the past simple tense form of “to be.” Look at the sentence below, in comparison to those above where we used “are” instead.
- Greg and Donna were at our house.
Again, Greg and Donna are the subjects. Because there are two subjects, the subject is plural. We can assume the sentence is in the past simple tense form because we used “were” rather than “are.”
Remember that when you write in the simple past tense with plural subjects, you’ll always use “were.” You’ll also use “were” with single subjects only when writing from the second-person point of view, such as in “You were at our house.”
You can also use “were” with another verb, where “were” acts as an auxiliary verb to essentially help define the tense and indicate a continuous action (source).
- Greg and Donna were having an argument.
While the argument occurred in the past, we also know that it was an event that was continuous in nature or ongoing. Using “were” helps to communicate to your reader that the argument happened at some point before the present moment.
Tenses can be tricky, and while the simple past tense is potentially the easiest to understand, others can feel confusing. For more information on the differences between past tenses, take a look at “Have Run or Had Run: When to Use the Proper Past Tense.”
Understanding When to Use “Were” Versus “Was”
One question that often comes up is differentiating not only between “are” and “were” but also between “were” and “was.” We’ve talked a lot about singular versus plural and past versus present. By now, you should know that “are” is present tense and “were” is past tense, and you can use both with plural subjects.
But “was” is also a conjugated form of the verb “to be.” And, like “were,” it is also past tense. However, unlike “were,” “was” is the first- and third-person singular form of the verb. Here are two sentences illustrating the difference:
- I was at your house yesterday.
- They were at your house yesterday.
The first sentence above uses “was” because the subject is first person singular (“I”). Conversely, the second sentence uses “were” because “they” is the third-person plural form. You can also use the third-person forms “he” and “she” with was; you would not use these pronouns with “were” because they are singular.
Using “Were” in the Subjunctive Mood
Grammatical moods are sets of verb forms that express the purpose of a sentence.
In addition to using “were” to denote past simple tense, you can also use “were” in the past subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood is a verb form representing an act or statement not as fact but contingent, hypothetical, possible, or viewed emotionally, like wishful thinking.
An example of this would be if you said, “If I were you, I would have left sooner to avoid being late.” Similar to the past tense conjugation of the verb “to be,” you need to use “were” with the subjunctive conjunction of the verb because the situation is not based in reality but is an unreal or imagined situation.
The example sentence above is hypothetical in nature because you cannot be another person. It is in the past subjunctive mood, a situation that is not “real,” thus requiring “were.”
Much like an “if/then” statement indicates a hypothesis, a “wish/were” statement is a sure sign of the subjunctive mood. Here is another example:
- I wish Johnny were here today.
“I wish” indicates a strong desire (though not a reality), thus the subjunctive mood.
For more information on the subjunctive mood, take a look at “I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood.”
Try to work through the practice sentences in the next section on your own.
More Practice With “Are” and “Were”
Below, you’ll see a few sentences with blanks indicating where you’ll need to choose between “are” and “were.” Look for keywords that denote tense (past versus present) to help you choose, as well as indicators of the subjunctive mood. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
- Today, we ____ (are or were) celebrating the Fourth of July at the park.
- Yesterday, we ____ (are or were) planning the party at Donna’s.
- I wish I ____ (are or were) eating pie.
In the first sentence, the word “today” indicates present tense; similarly, in the second, “yesterday” indicates past tense, and thus “were” is the correct choice. In the final sentence, “I wish” indicates the subjunctive mood, and, thus, “were” is again the correct choice.
Remember that the main distinction between “are” and “were” is that you will use “are” for the present tense and “were” to denote past tense. And, you can also use “were” in the subjunctive mood when writing or speaking about a hypothetical situation or scenario.
Tenses and the plurality of the subject in your sentence have a significant effect on the grammatical accuracy of your writing, but knowing which “to be” verb form that you’ll need to use is pretty simple if you can differentiate between past simple (were) and past present (are).